Photo/IllutrationTochinoshin, then a sekiwake, right, beats yokozuna Hakuho on the 12th day of the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, held in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on May 24. (Nobuo Fujiwara)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Sumo wrestler Tochinoshin became one of the most acclaimed sportsmen in Japan with his recent promotion from sekiwake to the second-highest rank of ozeki. But how did the Georgian giant reach such great heights?

Born Levan Gorgadze, the 30-year-old’s key advantages are his strength and might that can force any heavy opponent out of the dohyo ring. His log-like thighs each measures about 90 centimeters around, according to sources from his stable.

Those assets led him to a remarkable 13 wins during the recent Summer Grand Sumo Tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo's Sumida Ward.

EARLY PROMISE

As a young boy, Levan was fond of running up and down hills. Blessed with strong legs from an early age, he was put to work on the family vineyard crushing grapes with his feet for up to three hours a day.

His upper body grew stronger as a teenager, thanks to his muscle-building hobby of rope-climbing using only his arms.

He also practiced judo and other martial arts including sambo, which originated in the former Soviet Union.

All these factors helped develop Tochinoshin’s iron grip on his opponents’ mawashi (belt), but his power cannot be exactly measured, because his figures are too stubby to grip a dynamometer properly.

However, one anecdote gives an idea of how impressive Tochinoshin’s strength is. One day, the wrestler lifted all 70 kilograms of Sadayoshi Endo, a trainer based at Tochinoshin’s Kasugano stable, with just his left arm in the blink of an eye.

The unexpected event happened when Tochinoshin reacted to a sudden severe pain brought on by Endo, who was leaning over the wrestler lying flat on his back, massaging his ligaments.

“Tochinoshin could have performed well in other combat sports besides sumo,” said Endo.

RARE RIVALRY

Tochinoshin recalls from his judo days that Lasha Gujejiani, another Georgian grappler, was the only opponent he struggled to beat.

Gujejiani placed fifth in the men’s over-100-kg category of judo competition at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, while Japanese Satoshi Ishii beat Gujejiani on the way to winning the gold medal in the competition.

A sambo rival from his hometown who Tochinoshin never thought was very strong is now doing very well in the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, the top league in the world of combat sports.

JAPANESE TASTE

Unlike many non-Japanese, Tochinoshin likes to eat foul-smelling “natto” fermented soybeans, and he has a taste for eel. A keen cook, he owns five or six knives, and prepares a variety of dishes. The senior wrestler sometimes cooks Georgian cuisine for his younger colleagues.

Coming across as powerful yet gentle, Tochinoshin’s performances and behavior recall the wrestlers of the Showa Era (1926-1989). Conscious of his responsibility as a role model, he pledged to be an exemplary sumo wrestler on his recent promotion.

Even a sumo champion has a weak point, though, and for Tochinoshin, it is a certain slithery creature.

“I hate snakes,” he said. “I have never touched one. I do not want to see them, they are disgusting.”

So in Japan, where snakes are unlikely to cross his path, it seems the new ozeki can sleep easily.